Al’s Top Fifteen Songs +

Last year, Carl Wiser of SongFacts asked for people to make a list of their top fifteen songs and top fifteen albums. As with my album list, I spent 8 or 9 minutes compiling this initially, and quite a bit more time adding the notes. I also added a few more songs. Though fifteen albums is realistic, fifteen songs is not; fifty or a hundred? Maybe, but this would still have fallen far short for me, as music has been one of the few great pleasures of my life, and I have indulged it uncompromisingly. This is a much more eclectic mix than the album list, but it has been an impossible task. They are all contemporary, but see below for other less contemporary choices.

Heaven - DJ Sammy Remix
Get Some Sleep – Bic Runga
Crocodile Rock – Elton John
Living Proof – Wishbone Ash
Love Chronicles – Al Stewart
Manuscript – Al Stewart
Ayeneh – Jooliet
Careless Whisper – George Michael
Hello! Ma Baby – Ivor Biggun & Miss Amelia Blowhard
London Nightlife – White Lightning
Frightened Children – White Lightning
Face The Fire – Dan Fogelberg
Back To School – from Grease 2
Will You? – Hazel O’Connor
Carnival – Natalie Merchant

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The above are the top fifteen, but see also the supplementary list. Now, re the above:

Heaven - DJ Sammy Remix

This has to appear at the top of my list, even though it is really not my kind of song but for one thing. The original Bryan Adams recording is a fair effort, but the DJ Sammy Remix was the favourite song of Jessie Gilbert. Jessie had the world at her feet; she committed suicide aged nineteen in July 2006. Thirty years earlier, in July 1976, almost to the day, I did the same thing. Almost. I took a massive overdose and lay down to die. But I drank too much orange juice with the tablets, and three, maybe four hours later, as I hovered on the borderline of life and death, I woke up covered in vomit. Jessie’s death has taught me that success like IQ is vastly over-rated. Jessie and I had two things in common: we were nineteen years old and enthusiastic chess players, although I realised sometime after her death that we had another thing in common: we were both delusional, albeit our delusions concerned entirely different things.

Although I hadn’t seen Jessie for perhaps four years when she died, I still remember when we were in the church and the coffin was brought in. And they played this song. I must have heard it a dozen times since, and every single time it has the same effect on me. For that reason and for that reason alone, it has to be my number one.

Get Some Sleep – Bic Runga

Although she hasn’t produced an enormous amount of material, Bic Runga has already long established herself as the biggest thing ever to come out of New Zealand. I could include several of her songs in this list including the beautiful, poetic Gravity, and Say After Me; the latter contains the line “Love ends in a fire” – for me, love really did end in a fire. I’ve opted for Get Some Sleep because it was the first song of hers I ever heard, when she appeared on the BBC TV Breakfast programme. That and the fact that I must have played it literally hundreds of times, sometimes four or five times in a row.

Crocodile Rock – Elton John

Included solely because it was the first single I ever bought. A silly song really, but I played it until it was scratched to bits. At one time, boys and girls, records used to be played with needles. No, I’m not joking.

Living Proof – Wishbone Ash

I am a lifelong Wishbone Ash fan, and could include many of their songs in this list, most especially Lorelei and Persephone. I’ve included this because the live version from the Live Dates 2 double album has one of my favourite guitar solos. This particular version is superior to all others.

Love Chronicles – Al Stewart

Al Stewart’s epic song recorded for his second album. I can identify with so many things in so many of Al’s songs, including this one.

Manuscript – Al Stewart

Al said this song is a metaphor for the passing of time, like an old manuscript crumbling in your hands. The older I get, the more I identify with it. This is the first song in the historical folk rock genré, and still one of the very best.

Ayeneh – Jooliet

This was recorded in Farsi; there are many songs I could have included instead, especially as I understand only one word of this, the title – Mirror. But there is something about it.

Careless Whisper – George Michael

I’ve never been a great George Michael fan but this is a truly amazing song, especially as he was only seventeen years old when he wrote it. A song for betrayed lovers everywhere.

Hello! Ma Baby – Ivor Biggun & Miss Amelia Blowhard

Ivor Biggun specialises in writing and recording to put it mildy – filthy songs. This one came as a big surprise as it contains no innuendo or profanity at all. I was even more surprised when in researching it I discovered it wasn’t written by Biggun but had been around since 1899. All earlier versions are inferior to this, which includes a beautiful duet in counterpoint. A really brilliant novelty song.

London Nightlife – White Lightning

This song got a lot of airplay even though it was never released as a single. It is sad White Lightning broke up shortly after recording their second album. I can identify with this song on more than one level. For one thing I’ve spent most of my life in London. For another I’ve lived most of my life alone. For a third, many of us have been stood up on occasion. This is a song about the isolation one can feel in one of the greatest cities on Earth, surrounded by people but very much alone. A great song with some great soloing too.

Frightened Children – White Lightning

A second song from As Midnight Approaches; aren’t we frightened children? A great song with a great theme and some magic soloing from Simon Pengilly.

Face The Fire – Dan Fogelberg

A contemporary song about Three Mile Island, this has some great soloing from Fogelberg. Although this was not the disaster we thought it would be at the time – nothing like Chernobyl – it has a message we have been ignoring at our peril: Kill the fire and turn to the Sun.

Back To School – from Grease 2

I’ve chosen this as much as for its choreography; I’m not a great fan of musicals, but this song with a driving backbeat, strong lyrics and a spectacular presentation is as good as anything I’ve ever seen. And this is not a particularly good film.

Will You? – Hazel O’Connor

Like George Michael, Hazel O’Connor wrote her finest song early on in her career. I’m not a great fan of her music, but this is a song worthy of including in anyone’s top fifty or top ten for that matter. It is best noted for its lengthy sax solo. Although like all rock fans I am first and foremost into guitars, especially solos, the saxophone is a beautiful instrument in its place such as on Are You Receiving Me (Golden Earring), Baker Street, Take Five, or Will You?

Carnival – Natalie Merchant

The live version of this song includes a subdued but fine piece of soloing by lead guitarist Gabriel Gordon. The song itself is also a fine piece of metaphysics.

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There are a lot of songs I could add to this list. Definitely Elvaston Place by Al Stewart, because along with Say After Me I played this a lot after what I thought was the love of my life turned out to be…well, best not go there. Al wrote this song in the wake of his break up with Mandi, and short of something with a death theme like The Unquiet Grave, it is probably the saddest and most poigniant lament ever written.

I can identify with a lot of his songs; for example, Bedsitter Images reminds me of the time I lived in a Ladbroke Grove bedsit – where in July 1976 my life nearly ended (see above).

Another song in the same vein as Elvaston Place is Try Me by UFO. There are two excellent recordings of this: the original with Michael Schenker on lead guitar, and a “live” studio version with Vinnie Moore. What I really like is the strings; lead guitar with strings, or even backed by a full orchestra as with some early John Miles recordings, is something else. I played these three songs - Elvaston Place, Say After Me, and Try Me – incessantly after I was told me it was over, and that it was “no big thing” anyway. I couldn’t believe anyone could be so cruel, least of all her.

An afterthought: the DJ Sammy Slow version of Heaven is not the first song that has a tragic connection for me. When I was young I was sent away to boarding school; I had a medical problem which has long since gone – only to be replaced by many others! I was about nine at the time, I couldn’t have been much older. There was a kid I remember named Anthony Tunstall; he had bright ginger hair – not red, but ginger – and I suppose you’d call him a bit of a scamp. Although it is a Millennium away I have a very endearing memory of him. We were outside, and he gave me a sweet, a Sharp’s Super Cream toffee. As I took it I knew from the feel of the wrapper what he’d done; he’d eaten the sweet himself, and filled the wrapper with grass.

Sometime after, near Christmas, we were in morning assembly; it was only a small school, about forty-five of us, all boys, but with one or two female staff. The headmaster said he had an annoucement to make. Anthony Tunstall had been taken to hospital sometime before; I think we were all aware of that. But now we were told that he had died. I can’t remember from what at this distance in time, I think it was probably something to do with the reason he was sent to East Quinton.

After Mr Barrett’s announcement, we sang the carol Away In A Manger to a piano accompaniment. There was not a dry eye in the room, including his.

Another song I could add is Lana, an absolutely brilliant track full of imagery for which I wrote a songfact.

“Close your eyes forever Sleeping Beauty,
Leave the living feeling guilty,
Fairy tales should never end this way.”

That is not just Lana Clarkson, but Jessie Gilbert all over again.

If I had to include a Christmas song in this list it would without a shadow of a doubt be A Spaceman Came Travelling by Chris de Burgh. Although not all Christmas songs are crap – Elton John’s Step Into Christmas for example is very strong, especially melodically - …Spaceman… stands head and shoulders above any other Christmas song ever written, past, present and future. A few more, I really must limit it to another eleven!

Through The Barricades - this Gary Kemp composition is a masterpiece, especially in the context of the madness that has been Northern Ireland since before any of us can remember.

At Seventeen - the outstanding song by Janis Ian, and you don’t have to be either a girl or ugly to identify with it.

Lonely Is The Hardest - a totally uncharacteristic Suzi Quatro song co-written with her then husband Len Tuckey about sitting alone in a hotel room in London, over three and a half thousand miles from home.

For You - I’m not a great fan of capellas but this Judie Tzuke track, which I think was the second song of hers I heard, is a masterpiece, especially the string arrangement.

Little Hercules - written by Craig Carothers, and recorded by Trisha Yearwood, really inspirational stuff.

The Loyalist - co-written by Al Stewart and Dave Nachmanoff, although this song about Nachmanoff’s ancestor Adam Bower rightly belongs to the genré of historical folk rock, it struck a more contemporary note with me. Truly, “How did my story fade so fast?”

That Woman’s Gonna Break Your Heart - a Phil Lynott composition, and for me a prophesy that would come true thirty years after it was first recorded.

“Lonesome gambler
That woman will lead to heartbreaks...

That woman’s gonna break your heart
That woman’s gonna tear your soul apart
That woman’s gonna wreck your head
That woman’s gonna leave you sad, so sad...

You don’t know now
But it’s the wrong card you’re using
That deck you’re using
Is stacked against romance”

You said it, Phil; I should have listened.

I Believe - not to be confused with any other song of the same name, this metaphysical track from Satriani’s Flying In A Blue Dream is awesome.

As per the above, this is not to be confused with any other song of the same name, Believe won the 2008 Eurovision Song Contest for Russia; the block voting by the former Soviet...Bloc! annoyed a lot of people, including presenter Terry Wogan. Which begs the question did he actually listen to this track? It may not be the best song ever written, but it was certainly the best Eurovision entry that year, and arguably for many years. Again, inspirational stuff.

I’m Still Standing – one of the better songs in the latter part of Elton’s career; a lot of people will identify with this; including anyone who has ever been knocked down.

Among My Souvenirs - bar Away In A Manger, the oldest track on this list is a simple but truly great song written by a songwriter who was anything but great, although to be fair, Horatio Nicholls had other strings to his bow. The number one song in the USA in February 1928 was co-written with Edgar Leslie. There are many recordings, some better than others. Like Elvaston Place and Say After Me, I played this a lot during what was the lowest I have ever been in my life emotionally, and that includes July 1976 and the time twenty years later when The Filth and their ugly friends tried to destroy me just because they thought could.


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